Hone Pene enjoying the sun at one of the Recovery First nurseries. (Photo: Teuila Fuatai)

The backyard nurseries made for and by recovering addicts

Thanks to research and innovation hub Wai-Atamai, Recovery First is helping vulnerable people channel their energy into native plants.

Te Atatu local Hone Pene is pretty chuffed about his collection of plants.

In the crisp, morning autumn sun, the 63-year-old points out the rows of potted baby puriri, mānuka and kōwhai trees at the front of his house.

“Those ones are going up the road to Te Atatu Marae,” he says proudly. “We’ve been waiting years to get the green light to start to build the marae and it’s happening.”

The trees, as well as the trays of germinating seeds in his backyard, make up one of two home-based plant nurseries Hone and his brother Graham run as part of the pair’s Recovery First programme.

Like Hone (Ngāpuhi, Waikato Tainui), those who come into the programme are recovering drug and alcohol addicts. They are referred from probation services to complete community service hours through Recovery First. From growing plant cuttings, to potting and weeding, participants are responsible for taking care of the plants under Hone’s supervision.

At any one time, up to seven individuals will work at each nursery. Currently, the bigger Avondale nursery is being readied to receive a new lot of plants. Eventually, when the nursery plants are ready for a permanent home, they go to different community projects like the gardens at the Te Atatu Marae site.

From his dining room table, Hone discusses the motivation behind Recovery First.

“For me, I’m grateful because I know what my purpose in life is. That is to work with whānau who suffer from alcohol and drug addiction, and doing environmental mahi like growing trees,” he says.

“I’ve been in recovery coming up to five years now. When I came back into the programme of recovery, it was about what I could do to help, in particular, doing things with tangata whenua. These trees here can get planted on the side of the river, or they get planted on the side of the oceans to help restore the cleanliness of the water.”

Surveying the plant life down the side of Hone’s home. (Photo: Teuila Fuatai)

His own experience of addiction gives him a unique perspective around what works well and the challenges of day-to-day life for those in recovery. He touches briefly on his background, linking that to how Recovery First operates.

“You know, I got kicked out of school when I was 15, well before that, maybe 14. I was a real haututū-type fella. Got a real sweet tooth for alcohol and all that sort of stuff, and got into trouble,” he says with a sigh.

“I mean, it’s okay, it was all part of the journey. And I’ve got my children back in my life now, and my mokopunas, because I’m not blacked out on the floor haurangi.”

Manaaki for those in recovery, which includes helping them to reconnect with their community and loved ones where necessary, is an important part of Recovery First, he says.

“Mostly, I work with ones from my community, that way I can support them over and above [what other community service programmes might normally do]. And I’m only a phone call away. They walk here and they bike here. It makes it practical because most of them have had their driver’s licence taken off them.

“They love it. They do. It really is a one day at a time journey. Life affects us all differently, what’s good today may not be good tomorrow. It’s being able to have, I think, importantly, a support network.”

Establishing Recovery First as a social enterprise in late 2017 enabled him to formalise the work he did with other recovering alcoholics and addicts, and build up that support network. Growing trees and vegetables which would be used in the local community meant those in the programme picked up skills that benefitted them, their families and the environment, he says.

Its whānau-centred approach also honed in on what Hone believed was missing from other community service programmes focused on environmental initiatives.

“There are a lot of NGOs like EcoMatters Environment Trust, Community Waitakere and the Whau River Catchment Trust that do really amazing environmental work in the community. But there didn’t seem to be that much going on for tangata whenua and our voices and our actions weren’t being proclaimed as being out there doing something. We usually did the work for someone else who had initiated it.”

Hone’s efforts, which utilised his contacts with other environmental organisations as well as the Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment court, also caught the attention of Waipareira Trust’s social policy research and innovation hub Wai-Atamai.

Recovery First was among nine initiatives funded by the Whānau Ora Commissioning Agency after Wai-Atamai held a Dragons’ Den-style competition for grassroots programmes and organisations like Hone’s last year.

The $10,000 grant essentially enabled Hone and Graham to maintain the nurseries, and branch into other related projects like holding workshops on how to create gardens from heat-treated pallets.

One workshop held in conjunction with the Salvation Army has already taken place this year. Twenty-five recovering addicts took part in that and another three are planned with various organisations.

“The first question is usually where do I get a pallet from, and how do I know that it is heat treated and hasn’t got chemicals in it. Then the journey begins. It’s about sharing that information with the participants – that’s a milestone.”

Wooden pallets are a cheap and easy way to grow herbs, vegetables and small plants – vertically and horizontally.

The workshop sponsor also determines how the pallet gardens are used. While the Salvation Army can keep its pallet gardens on-site and use the vegetables from it, Hone hopes other workshops will lead to more vegetable gardens in public spaces around Te Atatu. That way, everyone has access, he says.

“I’m lucky because I can do a garden at my house as there’s space. They [pallet gardens] are great for cities and those who don’t really have a backyard. And for the ones that are living in their cars, they can come to the community garden and harvest the kai from there, which is important because we’ve got quite a few homeless people in Te Atatu.”

Wai-Atamai’s Jacqui Harema says Hone’s work with recovering addicts epitomises the type of programmes the hub target.

“We wanted people with different ideas who already had some networks in the community and were able to potentially be sustainable if they got funding. Hone’s idea around alcohol and drug recovery through nurseries, and the way he engages and the passion he has – that’s why he was picked as one of the winners.”

Importantly, Hone, who has lived in Te Atatu for 20 years, had already established himself and his work within the community.

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“We’re grassroots level and we want ground-up, not top down [programmes],” Jacqui says. “It’s about work that is already enhancing the community in their existing form, rather than coming in over the top and telling them what to do.

“That is what the hub is about, and it very much fits with the wider trust goals.”

Wai-Atamai is a multi-disciplinary, people-centred hub for research, strategy, innovation and creativity. Click here to find out more.


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